We’ve survived the month of February, which means March Madness is right around the corner. Conference tourney time will be here before you know it. So will a longstanding tradition, that of watching as schools fail once again to reach their first NCAA tournament.
There are 30 schools that have been in Division I for at least a decade that haven’t yet made a trip to the Big Dance. Of course, it is perhaps not as crushing for fans of UC Riverside (D1 since 2002) to fail to reach the promised land as it is for supporters of Northwestern, or St. Francis-NY, or Maine, all of which have been wandering in the no-tourney wilderness for far too long.
Can any of those schools finally make their big debut? That’s the subject of this post. I’ll be honest, however — the answer is probably going to be no. I started posting about this in 2010. At that time, I highlighted the 20 schools that had waited the longest for their first NCAA bid. It’s now 2013, and 19 of those schools are still waiting. The twentieth, Centenary, has given up the ghost and is no longer in Division I.
This year I’m expanding the list of featured teams to 30 — in other words, the 30 schools that have the most years in Division I with no NCAA appearances. There are actually around 52 schools (give or take a transitional member or two) currently in D-1 that have never made the Big Dance, but I’m only highlighting those schools that have been in the division for more than 10 years without receiving a bid. For schools like Presbyterian or Kennesaw State, the angst level just isn’t high enough (yet).
Before I delve into the hopes and dreams of those 30 schools, though, I want to mention a few schools that have actually made the NCAA tourney, but haven’t been back in a long, long time. Their fans are suffering, too.
Last year, Harvard won the Ivy League for the first time in its history, and advanced to its first NCAA tournament since 1946. That ended the longest drought for a school that had previously appeared in the event at least once. It’s a distinction that now falls to fellow Ivy leaguer Dartmouth, which actually appeared in the title game twice during the 1940s but hasn’t been back to the tournament since 1959.
Dartmouth won’t be back this year either, and neither will fellow Ivy League schools Yale (no NCAAs since 1962), Columbia (1968), or Brown (1986). That’s what happens when a league is dominated for over 40 years by two teams (Penn and Princeton).
This is the 50th anniversary of Tennessee Tech’s second, and last, trip to the NCAAs. The Golden Eagles had the misfortune of opening up their 1963 tournament against eventual national champ Loyola of Chicago, losing 111-42. Ouch. Speaking of the Ramblers, they haven’t been back to the NCAAs themselves since 1985.
Other schools that have made at least one NCAA trip but haven’t been back since 1993 (or earlier) while continuously in D-1: Bowling Green (no appearances since 1968), Rice (1970), VMI (1977), Duquesne (1977), Furman (1980), Toledo (1980), Mercer (1985), Jacksonville (1986), Marshall (1987), Idaho State (1987), Marist (1987), Middle Tennessee State (1989), Oregon State (1990), Loyola Marymount (1990), Idaho (1990), Towson (1991), Northeastern (1991), St. Francis-PA (1991), Rutgers (1991), Howard (1992), Georgia Southern (1992), La Salle (1992), Campbell (1992), Fordham (1992), Coastal Carolina (1993), East Carolina (1993), and SMU (1993).
Note: Seattle (a finalist in 1958, but which last made the NCAAs in 1969) and Houston Baptist (made the tourney in 1984) both left D-1 and then later returned, so they haven’t been in the division for all the years after making their most recent NCAA tourney appearances.
Some of these teams have notable accomplishments in tournament play. Jacksonville played in the 1970 championship game. Loyola Marymount made the Elite 8 in 1990 in one of the more famous runs in the tournament’s history, but hasn’t been back since. Another school that made the Elite 8 in its most recent NCAA trip: VMI, a fact that might surprise some people.
All in all, it’s an interesting list. Of the teams on it, probably Middle Tennessee State and Mercer have the best chance of making it back to the Big Dance this season. MTSU is the only one of the teams listed with even a prayer of getting an at-large bid. Until recently, I didn’t think the Blue Raiders had a realistic shot at one, but now I think it’s possible.
Among schools in BCS conferences, Oregon State is currently suffering through the longest drought, not counting Northwestern. Speaking of the Wildcats, it’s time to talk about the schools that have never made the tournament. As always, we start with The Forgotten Five.
All records are through March 4
The NCAA Tournament began in 1939. In 1948, the NCAA reorganized itself, and established separate divisions (university and college) for its member institutions. Of the schools that since 1948 have continuously been in what we now call Division I, there are five which have never made the tournament field. All five of those schools theoretically could have been in the tournament beginning in 1939, so for them the wait is actually longer than their history as official members of Division I.
The five schools are known as the “Forgotten Five”. The class of 1948 (or 1939, depending on how you look at it):
- Northwestern: NU actually hosted the very first NCAA championship game back in 1939. That year there was an eight-team tournament, and the concept of a “Final Four” had not yet taken hold. The first two rounds of the tournament were played in Philadelphia and San Francisco, with the final between Oregon and Ohio State taking place in Evanston.
This year, the Big 10 is generally considered to be the best hoops conference in the land, with as many as eight teams possibly making the NCAA tournament. Alas, Northwestern (13-16) is currently in 11th place in the league. Like every school on this list, the Wildcats’ only chance at an NCAA bid is to win the conference tournament.
- Army: It actually hasn’t been that bad a season on the hardwood for the Bulldogs of the Hudson. Army is 8-6 in Patriot League play (15-14 overall), but winning the conference tournament would likely require victories over both Lehigh and Bucknell. That would be a tall order.
- St. Francis-NY: Things are not looking good for the Terriers, as St. Francis (12-17) barely qualified for the NEC tournament, winning a de facto play-in game against Sacred Heart for the eighth and final spot in the league tourney.
St. Francis is actually the oldest collegiate basketball program in New York City, having fielded teams since 1896. Its most prominent hoops alum is probably the late James Luisi, a former NBA player better known for his work as an actor.
- William & Mary: While probably capable of pulling off an upset in the CAA tournament, it’s hard to see W&M running the table. The Tribe (13-16) is much improved from last season, but not quite ready yet to finally grab the brass ring. Jon Stewart will probably have to wait at least one more year to celebrate his alma mater’s initial appearance in the Big Dance.
- The Citadel: Ugh. This was supposed to be a year of improvement, after a freshman-laden team struggled mightily in 2011-12. Instead, the Bulldogs have struggled mightily in 2012-13 as well. The Citadel (8-21) has one of the Southern Conference’s best players in Mike Groselle, but that hasn’t been nearly enough for a program suffering through its third consecutive season of 20+ losses. My alma mater will not have its name called on Selection Sunday.
That’s the Forgotten Five. Next year, they are almost certainly still going to be the Forgotten Five. What about the other never-beens on our list?
Well, the odds aren’t too good for most of them.
- New Hampshire (began Division I play in 1962): The Wildcats finished the regular season in a tie for 7th place in the America East. At 9-19, UNH has actually lowered its alltime winning percentage this season, not an easy thing to do.
- Maine (also from the class of 1962): 11-18 overall, 6th-best in the America East. Maine may be good enough to win a game in the AE tournament, but that’s about it for the Black Bears. Time to focus on hockey.
- Denver (D-1 from 1948 to 1980, then back to the division in 1999): at 19-8 overall, and currently in second place in the WAC, the Pioneers have a decent chance to finally break through this year. Denver, which has won 15 of its last 16 games, runs a “Princeton-style” offense; the Pioneers are 346th out of 347 D-1 teams in pace of play. Interestingly, the team that is last nationally in that category is also on our list…and like Denver, has also had a fine season.
- UT-Pan American (class of 1969): UTPA has been gradually improving over the last couple of years, but the Broncs (15-15) will have to wait at least one more year for a shot at the NCAAs, as their conference (the Great West) doesn’t have an automatic bid. Next year, UTPA will join the WAC, which should be a boon for the program.
- Stetson (class of 1972): As I mentioned last year, the Hatters’ most famous hoops alum is Ted Cassidy, the actor who so memorably played Lurch on The Addams Family. Stetson (14-15) has had a bounce-back season of sorts in 2012-13, and could conceivably be a factor in what should be a competitive Atlantic Sun tournament.
- UC Irvine (class of 1978): This season, the Anteaters are a middle-of-the-pack team in the Big West, with Long Beach State favored to win the league’s automatic bid. However, I wouldn’t put it past UCI (17-13) to make some noise in the conference tournament, particularly with consensus Afro All-American Mike “The Beast” Wilder on the scene. Zot! Zot! Zot!
- Grambling State (class of 1978): Oh, mercy. Grambling is winless this year (0-27), and arguably one of the worst D-1 teams of the modern era (if not the worst), thanks to scholarship reductions caused by APR issues. GSU has not lost a game by fewer than 10 points. The Tigers will have one more chance to win a game this season, in the first round of the SWAC tournament.
- Maryland-Eastern Shore (D-1 in 1974-75, then back to the division for good in 1982): UMES lost its first 13 games this season and currently sports a 2-24 record.
UMES doesn’t have a football program any more (despite a gridiron alumni list that includes Art Shell, Emerson Boozer, Carl Hairston, Johnny Sample, and Clarence Clemons). Sometimes you have to wonder if the basketball program is worth having. This will be the 11th consecutive season the Hawks have lost 20 or more games.
- Youngstown State (D-1 in 1948, then returning to the division in 1982): The Penguins are a respectable 16-14, solidly in the middle of the Horizon League standings. Butler is no longer in the league, but Valparaiso and Detroit remain, and the combination of those two will make it difficult for YSU to win the league tournament.
- Bethune-Cookman (class of 1981): B-C is 12-18 overall, 7-8 in the MEAC. As usual, the league tournament schedule is an enigma, but it likely won’t matter for the Wildcats this year. It’s hard to see Bethune-Cookman outlasting Norfolk State and North Carolina Central (among others) in the MEAC tourney.
Props to the MEAC, though, for getting Aretha Franklin as the star of its tournament kickoff concert.
- Western Illinois (class of 1982): Here is the other master of slowdown play. The Leathernecks average only 58.3 possessions per game, fewest in the country. WIU is 21-7 overall, tied for first in the Summit League, and one of four teams in that league expected to contend for the conference tourney title. Two years ago, Western Illinois was the only team to lose to Centenary; the Leathernecks have come a long way since then. Will this finally be the year?
- Chicago State (class of 1985): Chicago State is 8-20, and plays in the no-bid Great West. Like UTPA, though, Chicago State is moving to the WAC, so there is hope for a future bid. Not this year, though.
- Hartford (class of 1985): The Hawks are a very decent 17-12. Perhaps alum Dionne Warwick can get one of her psychic friends to tell us whether Hartford will win the America East tournament. If not, expect even more anguished tweeting from Charleston (SC) sportscaster Kevin Bilodeau, a notorious Hartford apologist.
- UMKC (class of 1988): The Kangaroos are 8-23 and will barely qualify for the Summit League tournament, much to the displeasure of noted alum Edie McClurg. Maybe things will be better once UMKC moves to its new conference, the WAC. If you’re keeping track, that makes three schools on this list moving to the WAC.
Give the WAC your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…
- Buffalo (D-1 from 1974-77, then back to the division in 1992): After some excruciating close calls a few years back, the Bulls haven’t really been in serious contention in the MAC for the last two years. Buffalo is only 12-17 this season and clearly the road to the league title goes through Akron or Ohio U (though the Bulls just whipped the Zips).
- Sacramento State (class of 1992): It doesn’t look like this will be the year for the 13-13 Hornets. Tom Hanks’ alma mater has to compete against Big Sky heavyweights Montana and Weber State for the league’s automatic bid (and is in danger of not qualifying for the conference tournament). Incidentally, Sacramento State plays its home games at Colberg Court, which to my knowledge is the only D-1 gym named after a women’s volleyball coach.
- UT-Martin (class of 1993): In 2008-09, the Skyhawks won the regular-season OVC title, thanks in large part to Lester Hudson. However, UTM got beat in the tourney final by Morehead State and missed out on an NCAA tournament bid. Since then, UT-Martin has lost 20+ games in every season. At 9-20 so far this year, that trend will continue.
- Cal Poly (class of 1995): John Madden’s alma mater is 15-12 overall, 10-6 in the Big West, a slight improvement over last season. Like fellow never-been UCI, the Mustangs would have to get past Long Beach State (and Pacific) to win the league tourney.
- Jacksonville State (class of 1996): The Gamecocks are currently in fourth place in the OVC East, despite a solid 17-11 overall record. Even if they were 28-0, however, they wouldn’t be NCAA-bound, as Jacksonville State is banned from postseason play due to APR problems.
- Quinnipiac (class of 1999): The Bobcats’ biggest obstacle to garnering a first-ever NCAA bid has been Robert Morris, which beat Quinnipiac in the 2010 NEC title game (52-50) and in the 2009 and 2011 semifinals (the latter by a 64-62 score). This season, the Bobcats are 15-15 overall, and tied for fifth place in the NEC with an 11-7 league mark.
One of these years, Quinnipiac is going to win that league tourney. It will probably happen sooner rather than later.
- Elon (class of 2000): With an 20-10 record, Elon is enjoying its finest season since joining D-1. To throw a team party on Selection Sunday, however, Elon will have to get past Davidson and the College of Charleston in the SoCon tourney. It’s not completely out of the question.
- High Point (class of 2000): The Panthers finished first in the Big South North (heh) division with a 12-4 league record. High Point is 17-12 overall and is one of several schools capable of winning what should be a wild league tournament. Unfortunately, High Point’s chances were reduced considerably when leading scorer John Brown broke a bone in his foot.
High Point basketball has some interesting alums, including Tubby Smith, Gene Littles, and Joe Forte (the former ACC and NBA referee).
- Sacred Heart (class of 2000): The Pioneers finished the season 9-20 overall, with a 7-11 record in NEC play. Sacred Heart lost its last seven games, missing out on the NEC tournament.
- Stony Brook (class of 2000): After its baseball team went all the way to Omaha and the College World Series, it’s now the basketball team’s turn. The Seawolves (23-6) won the America East by three games and will be favored to win the league tournament.
- UC Riverside (class of 2002): At the beginning of this post, I wrote that it probably isn’t crushing for UCR fans that the Highlanders haven’t made the NCAAs yet, since they’ve only been in D-1 since 2002. That doesn’t mean they haven’t suffered, though. UCR is currently 6-23, in last place in the Big West, and barred from postseason play after not meeting APR requirements. Oh, and there was this game.
Well, that’s this year’s roll call. Thirty teams with a dream. Will any of those dreams come true this year? Normally, I would say no, because that’s usually the case — but this year, I’m betting at least one of these schools finally makes it. Denver, Western Illinois, and Stony Brook appear to be the top contenders.
I hope it happens. One of my favorite memories of “Championship Week” came in 2008, when American University finally qualified for the NCAA tournament. AU had been in D-1 since 1967. The head coach of the Eagles, Jeff Jones, cried in his chair on the bench after the game.
That is just another reason the committee shouldn’t expand the tournament (and why it should revert back to a 64-team field and get rid of the play-in games, which lessen the experience for automatic qualifiers). It’s an accomplishment to make the tournament. It means something. It should continue to mean something.
This year, at least, it will.
Filed under: Basketball Tagged: | Army, Cal Poly, Denver, Elon, Hartford, High Point, Maine, NCAA Basketball Tournament, New Hampshire, Northwestern, Quinnipiac, Sacramento State, Sacred Heart, St. Francis, Stony Brook, The Citadel, UC Irvine, UT-Pan American, Western Illinois, William & Mary